Laity Sunday 2020: Therefore Go! With Hope through Engagement
By David Teel
Laity Sunday celebrates the ministry of all Christians to love God and all people. On Laity Sunday (this year, October 18, 2020), we lift up the vocation of all (lay and clergy) to follow Jesus Christ and lead others to him. As we welcome and offer the good news of Jesus’ love for all, we know that the most engaging opportunities to grow deep and wide in our faith come from relationships with those beyond the comfort and security of our church walls. The stories and situations of those struggling with fear, loss, trauma, and injustice – as well as freedom, joy, and delight – become altar calls for the wholeness and holiness work of justice, mercy, and reconciliation. This is the ministry of the “all called,” the laity. This is relational discipleship and participation in the mission of God (mission Dei). Therefore, we will go (with hope) through engagement!
Laity Sunday 2020 - Overview
Laity Sunday is a special Sunday defined by General Conference “to celebrate the ministry of all Christians” (2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 264.2). Traditionally observed on the third Sunday in October (this year, October 18), Laity Sunday is one way we express the deep conviction that all are called to participate in God’s mission and live this calling through the ministry of the church. Read more about the history of Laity Sunday.
“The Holiness of conversation [is] the image of God visibly expressed.” - John Wesley, “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”
“Absolute attention is prayer.” - Simone Weil
Each year on Laity Sunday, we celebrate the priesthood of all believers. Last year, we emphasized deepening discipleship through participation in the means of grace (Therefore GO! With HOPE through Purpose). Through both works of piety and mercy, the means of grace are really spiritual attention training. They shape our ability to see God at work and participate in God’s world-repairing mission. This is soul-training and attuned vocational discernment. It is learning to hear and answer God’s call on our own lives as they intersect with the lives of all people: the all called to be all love (scriptural holiness) until all love God and neighbor.
The year 2020 has brought challenges to gathering in person that we could not fathom last October. This year, our celebrations of lay calling and leadership take place in the shadow of global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the unavoidable conviction that the body and soul crippling racism still plaguing our communities must end.
This dramatic context of God’s call to discipleship has only amplified our longing to connect, to experience Christ’s empowering presence in ways that strengthen us as we share grace with those God so loves.
In recent months, too, church “rules of engagement” have been rewritten before our very eyes. COVID-19 has created a new focus on those who aren’t in our buildings (because all of us can’t be in our buildings). We all know what it’s like to be “shut-in.” With this experience, a light has shown on many we hadn’t seen before, people who for a variety of reasons haven’t had access to the in-person experiences of grace we used to take for granted.
In the mix of our embrace of (or resistance to) live-streamed services, Zoom committee meetings, online Bible studies, and virtual VBS, there continues to be critical conversation about what constitutes “real” gathering, togetherness, and connection. As definitions of engagement broaden, attention has shifted from familiar experiences of worship and learning in our buildings to forms of participation that extend well beyond sanctuary walls. “Can we be Christ’s witnesses online? Can people cry for help through virtual spaces? Can we respond to those in need through online platforms?” Laity know all too well that the short answer is “yes.”
While it is tempting to think that “everything has changed” – the way we are “near” one another is very different in online and social distancing environments, to be sure – some things remain the same. Our mission and calling to grow deeper in love (discipleship) continues to name the way God uses lay efforts to engage all people so that all can recognize and respond to the vocation of grace. It is this very grace that preveniently meets all people’s brokenness and corruption where they are.
So, recognition (of those in need), participation (through shared life), and vocation (to all love discipleship) continue to define life together as the body of Christ. Whether through virtual connections or in-person worship and ministry, authentic relationships remain the key to lay disciple-making efforts. And these relationships deepen through engaging conversation and shared stories (whatever technology we use to connect and converse).
Everything comes back to the quality of our connections and conversations. Lay friendships and relationships with those outside the boundaries of weekly worship and programmed church life are creating new definitions of spiritual depth. And these are measured by prayerful attention to stories of graced life in the best and worst of times.
Laity are rediscovering that lasting commitment to transformation requires storied emotional connection. And they are finding new measurables, like the simple stories we listen to and share. Mark Youngman, a pastor at Providence Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, suggests that the new normal of online ministry for laity and clergy calls for measuring connection by the grace narratives that connect people to sacred power and one another: “How do we measure connection in a time of isolation? Our answer has been a return to story.”
Whether in person or online, laity know this: deep discipleship is still attention training – learning to see where grace is needed and already at work. In times such as these, laity are the eyes and ears of ministry in their communities. Like God our savior, laity see something wrong as a call for someone to help. It means having eyes to see and ears to hear God’s call coming through those who need our regard, help, and care. And increased awareness of the online lives of others, says author Deanna Thompson, helps us see, hear, and help. It’s simple: virtual efforts that pay attention to the online lives of people within and beyond our congregations help us better care for those who are suffering and in need of Christ’s touch.
So, through all our ongoing (and modified) discipleship efforts, we teach recognition through honed attention to people and places where grace seems in short supply – places where suffering, trauma, captivity, delusion, and injustice devastate the life God intends for all. Along with the stories, songs, and teachings of scripture and the Wesleyan tradition (and our own experiences of grace), we also apprentice ourselves to the lives of others to discern the call of God within and beyond our own spiritual enclaves.
So maybe the better question for lay leaders and ministry planners is not, “Is this season of virtual discipleship and online worship going to be enough?” but, “Are our in-person and online gatherings engaging or oblivious to lonely, isolated, and ‘quarantined’ lives?”
Enhanced attention by laity to those who can’t (or won’t) join us in the sanctuary is a new opportunity to “see all the people.” And while online forms of ministry might only be the “hem” of his garment for some of us, they are already helping crowd-sourced Christ followers become more attuned to Jesus’ question, “Who touched me?” (Mark 5:21-34). And pressing on with the same empowering presence Moses prayed for, laity are responding with the gift of an attentive and listening grace calibrated to the situations of those who need Christ’s touch the most. Therefore, GO.
This year’s Laity Sunday theme is: Therefore, GO with Hope through Engagement: Helping Transform the Surrounding Community. The focus is on deep discipleship through authentic, organic, and consistent relationships with all people, especially those beyond the walls of the church.
See also, Engaging Your Community: A Guide to Seeing All the People, Junius B. Dotson. https://www.seeallthepeople.org
To see a simple pattern for intentional discipleship (based on ¶ 122 in the 2016 United Methodist Book of Discipline, “The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission”) view/download the Laity Sunday brochure Laity Sunday brochure describing the four themes for the current quadrennium expressed in the acronym, H.O.P.E. (Hospitality, Offer Christ, Purpose, Engagement).
 Deanna A. Thompson. The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World (Abingdon Press, 2016).
David C. Teel is Director of Laity and Spiritual Leadership at Discipleship Ministries and a writer, editor, and Christian educator in Nashville, Tennessee. He studied at Vanderbilt Divinity School, serving United Methodist Churches since 1997.